Bullying: a silent killer

Bullying has received nationwide attention thanks to a string of high-profile suicides prompted by relentless bullying. Tagged an “epidemic,” “media hype,” and everything in between, public outcry and legal action following each suicide case is changing both the definition of and the response to a common childhood experience. Considering all this, it seems inappropriate to call bullying a silent killer. Yet only bullying in the context of suicide is being reinterpreted as a destructive symptom of a social problem endemic to young people; lines have been drawn around “bullycides” as separate from bullying in general, and this subtle change in definition has both structural and psychological ramifications. Meanwhile, “regular” bullying continues to occur everyday, and while our use of terms suggests it vanishes once people leave high school, it merely becomes recoded and renamed.

Which is where the anthropologist steps in, to elucidate on why and where bullying happens, and to answer critics’ biggest question: Are the “bullycides” really the direct result of bullying? I am of the opinion that both bullying and teen suicides are surface indicators of a deeper structure of interaction, internalized by children and coded into both adolescent and adult institutions. An anthropologist well acquainted with communication theories has a unique perspective on the phenomenon of bullying. When the tragedy of suicide strikes a community, it ripples throughout the nation thanks to expanded media coverage, coverage using the same technology now employed by bullies and manipulators of all ages. Bullying is a silent killer in that its effects are only loud when they are made loud, and even then, for every case that receives media attention, countless more have occurred and will continue to occur.

So my current independent research project is to examine the underpinning causes of bullying and harrassment, and its implications for anti-bullying laws and other measures to counter bullying. I would rather not divulge my theory just yet, as it is never wise to put the cart before the horse, or conclusions before data. Currently I am devouring as many news and academic articles as I can find on bullying, suicides resulting from bullying, and legal action related to bullying and harrassment in schools (I had to limit it somehow, and my particular interest is children and adolescents). I am also reading The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future(Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlain
and The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager
by Thomas Hine for answers, and intend to conduct some interview- and survey-based research. Below is my research statement:

Anti-bullying laws exist in 45 states, with Massachusetts being the most recent. These laws give law enforcement officials and educators new avenues through which to apprehend and prosecute bullies, particularly in cases that result in suicide. In addition, they require programs that give victims a way to have their stories heard and their cases investigated, and that promote compassion and tolerance in the hopes of cutting bullies off. Unfortunately, cases of suicide still occur, and bullying still occurs among adults, where it goes by other names. This project consists of preliminary research into the social negotiations of children and whether bullying has responded to anti-bullying programs, the ramifications and effectiveness of the new legislation, and possible anti-harrassment measures for adults. In addition, I hope to draw conclusions about the structural and ideological characteristics of the United States that allow for bullying.

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